Smyly making strong case for 5th starter spot

VIERA, Fla. — It’s sometimes hard to tell from his laid-back demeanor, but Drew Smyly is a fierce competitor who hates losing.

Judging by this spring, Smyly is not going to let the fifth starter’s job go to Rick Porcello without a fight.

In his previous outing, Smyly had his first truly poor performance of the spring, giving up five runs on seven hits while walking one and striking out five against the Washington Nationals.

Smyly got his revenge Friday at Space Coast Stadium in Viera.

Smyly allowed just one run on four hits while striking out five in five innings.

“You don’t take it kindly, especially when you’ve got to face the same team in five days,” Smyly said. “You gotta make adjustments quick or else the same thing will happen. Sometimes that’s good if you get one team kind of hits you around, then you gotta come back. It shows how quick you can learn, so it won’t faze you. I’m happy how (Friday) went.”

Although Smyly had had success this spring, pitching coach Jeff Jones had seen a few things that concerned him. Friday Jones saw exactly what he wanted to see.

“He stayed in his delivery the whole time,” Jones said. “The last couple of times out, even against the Phillies, he got a little bit out of whack in the middle innings. Even though they got a couple hits today, he stayed in his delivery and made pitches when he needed to.”

Smyly said he and Jones had worked on a few mechanical tweaks in between starts against the Nationals.

“Sometimes I kind of fly open and try to throw a pitch too good or too hard and leave it up in the zone,” Smyly said. “So I was just really working on just staying in, making sure I make a good pitch down in the zone.”

The Nationals were playing most of their top players, including Denard Span, formerly of the Minnesota Twins, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond.

None of them got a hit until the fourth inning, when Werth and Harper had back-to-back singles. That turned out to be no trouble for Smyly, who struck out Zimmerman and got LaRoche to ground out.

Desmond hit a home run leading off the fifth to account for Smyly’s only earned run.

“He looked good,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He rolled that one breaking ball that Desmond hit out, but he threw good. Very well. That’s a top-shelf lineup and he was pretty impressive, to say the least.”

In addition to facing a team that had roughed him up last time out, Smyly’s competitive juices were also flowing because the opposing pitcher was Stephen Strasburg.

“It’s fun,” Smyly said. “I feel like all spring I’ve been going up against a heavyweight pitcher — Cliff Lee, (Roy) Halladay. Games like that just make it more fun. It’s exciting when you get to face a pitcher like Halladay. You know you gotta bring your ‘A’ game or you’re not going to give your team much of a chance.”

Smyly threw 75 pitches, 54 for strikes, and said he never felt fatigued.

“I felt great,” Smyly said. “(Friday) was one of my better outings, I felt, all-around. I felt good, didn’t get tired, my arm felt strong the whole game.”

Smyly, 23, knows the competition for the fifth starter’s job is coming to an end. He also knows Porcello has made a strong case, going 3-1 with a 2.50 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, which includes 18 strikeouts and zero walks.

Smyly is 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, with 17 strikeouts and three walks.

Smyly said he feels more experienced, smarter and knows what to expect compared to last year at this time when he was a rookie. But that doesn’t guarantee he’ll break camp with the Tigers.

“You want to be on the team,” Smyly said. “I want to be in the major leagues and help this team win. But that’s over my head. I can’t focus on that.”

Smyly still has options so he could go start in Toledo or the Tigers could decide that Smyly belongs with the big-league team but in long relief.

“Right now I’m focusing on starting but any way I can help the team win is what I’m focused on,” Smyly said. “So if that’s what they want to do, I’ll do the best job I can at it.”